(Born Ornans, Franche-Comté, 10 June 1819; died La Tour de Peilz, Switzerland, 31 December 1877). French painter, one of the most powerful personalities in 19th-century art. He was the son of a prosperous farmer at Ornans, at the foot of the Jura Mountains, near the Swiss border. His country upbringing was important to his art, for although he spent most of his career in Paris, he rarely painted urban subjects (‘His palette smells of hay’, Cézanne said of him). He was a man of independent character and obstinate self-assurance, and claimed to be self-taught. In fact he studied with various minor masters in Ornans, Besançon and Paris, where he moved in 1839, but he learnt more from copying the work of 17th-century naturalists such as Caravaggio and Velázquez in the Louvre. It was largely from them that he derived his very solid and weighty style, with its strong contrasts of light and shade. His earliest pictures (including several narcissistic self-portraits) were in the Romantic tradition, but with three large canvases exhibited at the Salon of 1850 he established himself as leader of the Realist movement: these are A Burial at Ornans (Mus. d'Orsay, Paris), Peasants at Flagey (Mus. B.-A., Besançon), and The Stone Breakers (formerly in Dresden, but destroyed in the Second World War). The huge burial scene in particular made an enormous impact: it was attacked in some quarters for its alleged crudity and deliberate ugliness, but also hailed for its powerful naturalism (he got the idea for the picture at his grandfather's funeral). Never before had a scene from everyday life been presented in such an epic manner and Courbet was cast in the role of a revolutionary socialist. He gladly accepted this role (although it is unlikely that he painted the picture with political intention) and he became a friend and follower of the anarchist philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, collaborating on his book On Art and its Social Significance (1863). Courbet's boldness and self-confidence are as evident in his technique as in his choice of subjects. He often used a palette knife to apply paint and his work shows an unprecedented relish for the physical substance of his materials.

Text source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)

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